Rating Change: Virginia Governor’s Race Moves to Tilts Democratic

It will not be easy for Democrats to explain away a loss here

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. Northam faces Republican Ed Gillespie in the race to succeed McAuliffe. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats have been racking up special election victories in state legislatures around the country, and millions of people have been hitting the streets and packing town halls in protest of President Donald Trump. But they are still looking for their first signature victory since the former reality television host took over the Oval Office.

It was easy for Democrats to explain away special election losses in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and even Georgia’s 6th District, considering voters there favored Trump in 2016. But the stakes are much higher in next week’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, which Hillary Clinton won by more than 5 points.

Based on the last three presidential elections in Virginia, an unpopular Republican president in the White House, a history of commonwealth voters most often supporting a candidate for governor from the opposite party of the president, and a popular outgoing Democratic governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has plenty of advantages in the race. Yet with just a week left before the Nov. 7 election, he and Republican Ed Gillespie are locked in a competitive battle.

A win in Virginia would give Democrats something to hang their hat on, even though it would only be holding the status quo. Democrats are well-positioned to take over the governorship in New Jersey next week, but won’t get much credit for winning a race in a state where outgoing GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s job approval rating is dismal and Clinton won by 14 points.

Northam appears to have a narrow advantage in the commonwealth, but there is some wariness about projecting a winner because Virginia’s 2013 race for governor and 2014 race for the Senate were both closer than expected.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe had a 6-point advantage over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the RealClearPolitics polling average on Election Day in 2013 and ended up winning by 2.5 points. A year later, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner held a nearly 10-point advantage over Gillespie in the RCP average, yet won by less than 1 point on Election Day.

As of Sunday evening, Northam had a 3-point lead over Gillespie in the RCP average, 46 percent to 43 percent.

The polling hasn’t always overstated Democratic chances, however. In 2016, the RCP average came within a tenth of a point of Clinton’s 5.4-point margin.

A majority of evidence points to an advantage for Northam, but there is enough data and uncertainty to downgrade the Democrats’ chances of victory. We’re changing the Inside Elections rating of the Virginia gubernatorial race from Leans Democratic to Tilts Democratic.

Of course, this is just one race, but the result will likely reverberate around the country if Democrats lose in Clinton territory against a former federal lobbyist easily connected to national politics. (Gillespie was a onetime chairman of the Republican National Committee.) At a minimum, it would cast some doubt about Democratic performance in next year’s midterms and how Trump affects down-ballot GOP candidates.

Even if Northam currently has a significant lead, Democrats have cautioned for weeks that the race could be close in the end. The party has won four gubernatorial elections in the last 25 years with an average margin of victory of less than 4 points.

There will be a temptation to over-interpret the results next week, but the fallout from a Democratic loss would be something to watch, particularly if it causes either party to rethink its messaging strategies for 2018.

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